Killing Time

For the first time since I landed in Iraq, I'm panicking. Not that a bomb has gone off. Or that an RPG has hit nearby. It's my flight out of here that's got my heart ready to jump out of my ribcage.I'm sitting in a hangar-sized waiting room in the middle of the Baghdad airport's military wing. Defense Department contractors, most of them overweight by 75 pounds or more, waddle about the canvas-walled terminal, dripping sweat. Dozens of soldiers sit in rows of movie theater-style seats, reading paperbacks and watching "The Elephant Man" on a big-screen TV. Others catch naps on the floor, leaving their uniforms and their rucksacks covered with a talcum-like white dust. Many of them have been waiting around here for more than a day, killing time until their planes are ready to take off.I may be joining them in the powder. Sandstorms regularly ground flights here. And after a perfectly clear morning, the air is beginning to grow hazy with dust. The people at the terminal are talking about "maintenance issues" which could ground my flight to Kuwait or maybe re-route it to Mosul, 300 miles in the opposite direction. And that has me pacing around the terminal with worry.Why I'm acting like this, I have no clue. In the last two weeks, bullets have zinged over my head. A mortar began smoking at my feet. And the patrol I was with was ambushed on at least two occasions. None of that really bothered me. But now, I might be missing a goddamn plane ride, and I'm freaking the fuck out. What the hell?Maybe my reaction isn't so mysterious. After all, when it comes to travel, I'm the latest in a long line of nervous nellies. My grandfather, he'd show up to an airport three hours before takeoff. My dad leaves an hour to get to the train station, even if it's only twenty minutes away. I like to think of myself as not quite as twitchy as them. But check me out now, drumming my fingers against my thigh. Am I really all that different? On the other hand, I've never seen any member of my family in combat. There's no neurotic blueprint to follow.Or maybe it's because I've done so much waiting around for this story already: waiting for my body armor and my shockproof laptop to show up; waiting to leave the country; waiting to get into Iraq from Kuwait, and into my unit once I was there; waiting for the insurgents to do something, so I could write it down; waiting for them to stop. And I know I've got more waiting ahead. It's going to take three days, at least, to get back to New York. God knows, I don't want it to take any longer.Or maybe I'm so anxious because I finally can be. Because the real danger has past, and now I'm free to exhale. When I was a musician, I'd almost always come down with a nasty cold right when a tour was done as if my antibodies were finally giving up, after a month of holding germs at bay. As if my body finally knew that I could afford to spend a day in bed.Which gets me thinking about the soldiers I've just left behind. They've got five months, at least, until they have the luxury of worrying about a missed plane. And even when they do come back home, it won't be much of a reprieve. Most of them figure they'll be back in Iraq in another year. And while they're stateside, they'll be extremely busy. Before they shipped out to Iraq, these soldiers spent 11 of the prior 15 months on domestic missions; before that, they were on duty in the Balkans.These guys are a small sliver of the half-million or so men and women who are rapidly becoming this country's permanent warrior class -- centurions for whom there's no break in the fighting, no rest from the alerts, no chance to get nervous before a flight. All of the burdens of war fall on these men and their families. The rest of us -- 95 percent plus of the country, as Uwe Reinhardt notes in today's Washington Post get off basically scot-free. We don't even pay extra taxes to support them.Not too long ago, we used to have "citizen-soldiers" in this country. That's feels almost antiquated these days. Today, our citizens and our soldiers have become increasingly separated into distinct camps. The former gets all of the benefits of the latter's sacrifice. And the segregation is only getting worse, as new recruits become harder to find, and our legionnaires get tax-free lump-sums worth a year's salary or more by re-enlisting while deployed.When I get back to the States, I'll pick up with my reporting on the gadgets and mechanics of the military. But I'm also going to try a lot harder to be a voice for this marginalized segment of society that is being asked to do so much in our name.I'll start as soon as I can. But right now, I have to go. My flight is getting ready to board.THERE'S MORE: USA Today has a must-read story today on the "bidding war" between the government and private industry over our warrior class.

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